If you see a riverine rabbit, you will belong to a very tiny and exclusive group of people. It is thought to only number in the low hundreds and is found along dry riverbeds in the arid central Karoo. This critically endangered mammal is a flagship species for this semi-desert’s delicate ecology.

Did you know?

The riverine rabbit is the only indigenous burrowing rabbit in Africa.

In the middle of South Africa’s semi-arid Karoo is found one of the world’s most vanishingly rare mammals: the riverine rabbit.

There are thought to be only a few hundred left, which is why this handsome little creature with its distinctive matinee idol ‘moustache’, white-ringed eyes and fluffy feet is classified as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Riverine rabbits are found nowhere except in South Africa’s Karoo region, and as their name indicates, their preferred habitat is along the dry riverbeds of this arid region. They rely on the deep, silty soils for burrowing, and the river-edge plants, which remain greener for longer, even when the rivers are completely dry. Many riverbanks in this area have been degraded by grazing and crops.

Habitat loss is one of the greatest threats to the species’ survival.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Riverine Rabbit Programme is based in the tiny Karoo town of Loxton, and works closely with local farmers to save the rabbit, including rehabilitating degraded riverbanks with suitable plants.

The riverine rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis) is nocturnal. It lies up in shallow scrapes under bushes during the day, and sallies out at night to hunt for its favourite buchu and inkbush leaves and flowers. Riverine rabbits only live for about three years, and females mostly have about four babies in their lifetimes, all born in burrows lined with fur and leaves.

With so few riverine rabbits, it’s difficult to build up a picture of their habits. The Endangered Wildlife Trust has observed them through camera traps, activated by motion. One of the first things the researchers learned was that these nocturnal creatures are often still out in the very early morning, especially in winter.

Riverine rabbits are obviously difficult to see. Even fieldworkers can go for years without actually encountering one.

So it was a real thrill for conservationists in 2006 when the privately-owned Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, only three hours’ drive from Cape Town, found its 54 000 hectares were home to several riverine rabbits.

The management at this private reserve set up a monitoring programme that recently celebrated its 101st riverine rabbit sighting.

Dunedin Farm near Loxton also offers special drives to look for riverine rabbits. A number have been photographed on their farm using camera traps.

The riverine rabbit’s range has been found to stretch far further south, in recent years, than its ‘traditional’ range around the towns of Williston, Fraserburg, Carnarvon, Victoria West and Loxton in the dry Karoo region.

It has always been an elusive animal, first described for science in 1902 by a British trooper recuperating at the South African War (also known as the Anglo-Boer War) field hospital at Deelfontein in what is now the Free State. Then it disappeared for decades.

In the 1940s, the Kaffrarian Museum in King William’s Town offered a pound per specimen – which is why the riverine rabbit is still sometimes called the pondhaas, which means 'pound rabbit' in Afrikaans.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Riverine Rabbit Programme, Endangered Wildlife Trust
Bonnie Schumann (field officer)
Tel: +27 (0)53 381 3068
Cell: +27 (0)72 122 4232
Email: bonnies@ewt.org.za

Christy Bragg (programme manager)
Tel: +27 (0)27 218 1276
Email: christyb@ewt.org.za

Sanbona Wildlife Reserve
Tel: +27 (0)41 509 3000
Email: reservations@sanbona.com

Riverine Rabbit Retreat on Dunedin farm (between Loxton and Beaufort West)
Johan and Marietha Moolman
Tel: +27 (0)23 418 1628
Cell: +27 (0)83 579 8826
Email: moolmankaroo@gmail.com

Jakhalsdans Game Farm and Guesthouse (near Loxton)
Nicola & Linda van der Westhuizen
Tel: +27 (0)53 381 3005
Cell: +27 (0)82 891 0481
Email: info@jakhalsdans.co.za

Karoo Cottage (Loxton)
Tel: +27 (0)53 381 3091
Cell: +27 (0)83 384 8223

Four Seasons Guesthouse (Loxton)
Tel: +27 (0)72 377 0602

Rus 'n Bietjie Guesthouse (Loxton)
Tel: +27 (0)53 381 3031

Loxton Guesthouse (Loxton)
Tel: +27 (0)72 037 6660

How to get here

One of the best place to see the riverine rabbit (although given its numbers, there are no guarantees) is at Sanbona Wildlife Reserve. From Cape Town, head for Paarl, go through the Huguenot Tunnel to Worcester and from there, take the Robertson road. After nearby Ashton, you’ll be on the fabled R62 road. Head through the pretty town of Montagu and on for another 43km, when you’ll see the Sanbona gate. Alternately, there are several farmstays in and around Loxton that offer fair chances of seeing riverine rabbits – including Dunedin Farm and Jakhalsdans (see contact details listed). If you’d like to find out more about the riverine rabbit, visit the Endangered Wildlife Trust's offices in Loxton, a little town between Carnarvon and Beaufort West. The offices are close to the church (which is impossible to miss). Loxton is about six hours’ drive from Cape Town. Take the N1 north and at Beaufort West, take the turn towards Loxton on the Carnarvon road.

Best time to visit

Karoo winters (May through August) can be brutally cold, but these are usually the best times to see nocturnal animals. They tend to loiter about until the sun is up, soaking in a bit of warmth before retiring for the day.

Tours to do

On Dunedin Farm near Loxton, the Moolman family will run special night drives to look for riverine rabbits, on request.

What will it cost

If you’re staying at Sanbona, which is a 5-star establishment, expect to pay approx. R4 000 per person per night. This will include all meals, accommodation, game drives and many extras. Farmstays are much cheaper and the accommodation comfortable but not upmarket. Expect to pay between approx. R250 and R500 a person per night, depending on meals and other extras.

Length of stay

As with all elusive animals, the longer you stay, the better your chances of seeing a riverine rabbit. You may be lucky enough to join the very exclusive club of those who have seen one, but bear in mind that there are absolutely no guarantees.

What to pack

Even if you go in the height of summer, take along something warm to wear. Temperatures sink dramatically in any desert at night, and the Karoo is no exception. You will need heavy-duty warm clothes during winter. A good sunblock and hat and light clothes are essential in summer.

Where to stay

Apart from Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, you can pick from a variety of accommodation in and around Loxton, notably farmstays.

Best buys

You can pop in and buy a riverine rabbit fluffy toy and a Karoo Life game for the family in the Endangered Wildlife Trust's office in Loxton. At Easter time (usually in late March or Easter), buy a Lindt chocolate bunny anywhere in South Africa and the chocolate company will donate money to the Riverine Rabbit Programme.